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Cement plant rankles Silicon Valley neighbors

Angela Johnston
A view of Lehigh Cement plant in the Silicon Valley foothills near Cupertino.

Up in the Silicon Valley foothills, there’s something that many Bay Area residents don’t even know exists. It’s deep and it’s full of dirt.

“It’s a very large hole in the ground,” says Kari Saragusa, CEO of the Lehigh Southwest Cement Company, just outside Cupertino.

He is referring to a very large hole that is 650 feet deep and almost a quarter mile wide.

If you fly over this area in a plane or maybe stretch your head out of your car window while driving south on 280, it looks like someone took a giant chunk out of the hillside. The hole is a limestone quarry owned by Lehigh. And all around that hole is a factory that takes the mined limestone and converts it into cement.

“We're pulverizing it, we're heating it, and then we're pulverizing it again,” Saragusa says. “And that's what cement is, and that's the über-simplified way of putting it.”

Since 2010, the Bay Area’s population has grown at a faster rate than the US, or California as a whole. And the growth in population – spurred by the tech industry – is coupled with lots of construction. The new Bay Bridge, the Transbay Terminal, Levi's Stadium and the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay are just a few of the dozens of recent infrastructure and construction projects in the Bay Area. One thing they all have in common? Cement.

Cement is to concrete as flour is to bread; the powdery, pulverized rock is the key ingredient in concrete, along with water and sand. This recipe makes the solid base of almost every foundation.

“The key to making good consistent cement is to have good consistent raw materials," Saragusa says. "And we’re dealing with a deposit that mother nature put down millions and millions of years ago. There was volcanic activity that basically mixed some of the raw materials up in the ground.”

A peek inside

On our way up to a lookout point over the quarry, we pass some of the biggest dump trucks I’ve ever seen. It looks like we’re in or on another world, like a moonscape or something out of the movie Mad Max.

The view of the Lehigh Permanente Quarry from the observation deck.
Credit Angela Johnston

There are piles of grey dirt everywhere. Rust-colored equipment and conveyor belts zig-zag into domes with limestone deposits attached to them, hanging like dark grey stalactites. There’s a 300-foot tall stack in the middle, with a massive metal tube attached to it that lets out a high-pitched buzz as it slowly rotates on its side.

Saragusa says when it comes down to it, making cement isn’t much different from what you see in "The Flintstones."

“All it’s doing is turning big rocks into little rocks and it’s been happening here for along time," he says. “Most people in the Bay Area would recognize Henry Kaiser’s name. Henry Kaiser built this plant in 1939 to supply a large dam project at Mount Shasta.”

Henry Kaiser actually named his Health Foundation after the creek that runs alongside the quarry. It’s called Permanente Creek. Back then, this whole area was orchards and fields.

“As you can imagine in 1939 when this plant was built, there weren't very many houses, none outside the gate for sure,” Saragusa says. “But not even in the whole South Bay area.”

But as Silicon Valley grew,  homes and schools  – and later tech companies – started popping up around the quarry. Now, there are millions of people who live around the Lehigh plant.

“The neat thing about having it near a metropolitan area is it's very conducive to providing product to the industry that uses it,” Saragusa says.

Saragusa says Lehigh produces roughly 90% of the cement used in concrete for Bay Area construction projects. They sell about 4,500 tons of cement per day. That’s enough to pour foundations for about 400 houses.

As the Bay Area builds more highways, hospitals and bridges, Lehigh profits. But they also get more neighbors. And many of those neighbors are concerned.

Neighborhoods on watch

Bill Almon lives in Los Altos Hills, only a few miles away from the cement plant. And twice a month he has to wash his car with vinegar.

His silver Toyota Corolla is coated in a very thin layer of limestone dust. You can’t tell by looking at it, but if you rub your palm over the paint, it’s there.

“It won’t come off with water," he says. "You've got to put something in the water to dissolve the limestone and what you use is the easiest thing.”

The dust on Almon’s car is actually particulate matter that comes from the blasts in the quarry.

“You also get dust down at the Cupertino side from the cement plant and you get it also from the trucks,” Almon says.

Almon isn’t the only one who uses this vinegar car wash trick – it’s a neighborhood secret.

Other neighbors complain the dust gets on their windows and the sides of their homes. But a dirty car is actually the least of Almon’s worries. There’s also what the plant is dumping in the creek that runs by his house, and what his neighbors’ kids are inhaling when they play outside.

Lehigh is regularly listed as one of the biggest Bay Area polluters. And Almon is just one of hundreds of local citizens who keep a very close watch on the plant and its emissions. Almon tries to attend almost every public meeting there is about Lehigh.

“We've been pressing the county, the city councils, the air district, the water board, et cetera,” Almon says. “And I would say in the last five years, we’ve made a lot of progress."


Environmental concerns

But Almon and others are still concerned. One issue is water. Back in April, Lehigh was fined $7.5 million by the Environmental Protection Agency for dumping millions of gallons of toxic water into Permanente Creek, which flows into the San Francisco Bay.

Another big issue is air quality. When the limestone is heated to make cement, chemicals like mercury, ammonia and dioxins get released into the air. These chemicals can cause cancer and respiratory problems. In September, Lehigh made another settlement with the EPA for failing to report these toxic chemical emissions five years ago.

But the local agency that’s in charge of making sure that the air is safe says Lehigh is doing okay.

“We make sure the monitors are monitoring accurately,” says Wayne Kino, director of enforcement at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “We make sure that the facility is running and meeting all the standards. We're pretty sure that it's the most controlled cement plant in the nation.”

Kino and his team set limits for Lehigh and only allow them to produce a fixed amount of cement each year.

Otherwise it’s a violation of the district's rules and that comes with monetary penalties, Kino says. “Even though the Bay Area's growing, they can only produce so much. And if they have to go beyond that or the need is beyond that, they have to import [the cement].”

The Air Quality Management District also tests the air around Lehigh. They claim that the mercury levels now are at what they call "background levels" – harmless, they say: the same concentrations you’d see in national parks. But Kino admits that’s all because of citizens like Almon.

“I think having a passionate community is necessary for this process, “ Kino says. “They provide us the ability to be able to go as far as we go. We have the most stringent rules in the world. If it was left up to the regulated facilities, we probably wouldn’t go as far.”

Still, they get calls almost every day about the plant. And they have inspectors out at Lehigh at least once a week. But it’s not just the Air Quality Management District. There’s the EPA, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Department of Environmental Health. The Regional Water Quality Control Board has five staff members dedicated to Lehigh. On any given day, there could be dozens of inspectors checking out equipment, taking water samples, and measuring the air quality.  

“And if we're not making them happy, we will be shut down,” Lehigh CEO Saragusa says. "They don't care about what we think. I mean they're good people to work with but they really are looking out for the public's best interest in all cases.”

Public perception

These regulatory agencies say they aren’t trying to force Lehigh out of business. And Saragusa says Lehigh isn’t trying to pull a fast one on the agencies. But he knows that’s not the perception the public has.

“The assumption is that our goal is to pollute on purpose, get away with as much as we can and produce more than we’re legally permitted to do, “ Saragusa says. “And that couldn't be further from the truth.  We’re a very simple, non-complicated, not-technical industry. We’re basically rocks, stones, heavy equipment, and we’re making a commodity.”

But it can be complicated to regulate such a large industry. Lehigh is watched by at least eight different regulatory agencies. Sometimes they have goals that overlap , other times they contradict each other. Take for example the case of a red-legged frog. A couple years ago, one single frog conveniently made its home in one of the tailings ponds in the cement plant.

“From one perspective is a good thing because it means that it’s providing some habitat,” says Dyan White with the Regional Water Quality Control Board. “But the flip-side of that is they were pumping water out of that pond and required to filter that water in order to improve the quality that’s discharged downstream. They were forced, under the Endangered Species Act, to turn off the filtration system because of fears that the frog will get sucked up into the filtration system so it's kind of a catch-22."

Lingering concerns

There are other issues, like the fact that despite the dozens of people who are watching over Lehigh closely, no one is regulating the intensity of the blasts in the quarry, the explosions that break up the rock. What if they cause an earthquake? And the person you have to call about seeing smoke from the plant is someone completely different from the person you have to call with a noise complaint.

“So they run 24/7 and so at night I will hear this -- eeeeeeeeeeennnnnn aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” says Paula Wallis who lives in Cupertino, behind the cement plant.

This sound drives her crazy. She calls someone every time she sees or hears of a problem with the cement plant.

“Because I want them to know that people are watching,” she says.

Wallis says she understands that the growing Bay Area needs cement.

“Look at all the wonderful things that cement builds, you know, we all have patios built out of cement,” Wallis says.

Credit Angela Johnston
Saragusa says Lehigh produces roughly 90% of the cement used in concrete for Bay Area construction projects.

Unlike some of her neighbors, she’s not worried that the plant will give her cancer, or her children autism. There isn’t enough scientific evidence out there to prove that, she says. But she thinks that Lehigh should be held to higher standards. That their equipment should the newest, cleanest technology – the same technology that a brand new plant would have if it was built today – even if it comes at a cost.

So Wallis asks questions. Like Bill Almon, she attends meetings. And, she watches.

“I watch this facility for not only my neighbors and myself, but also for the people of Cupertino and the larger Bay Area,” she says. “Somebody else somewhere will take care of that creek that is running by their house, and make sure that it’s healthy, that it looks good and that it’s not full of trash. Together we work on the little areas that we can, not taking on the world – but just taking on a small aspect of what we can do, to benefit all of us."

And people like Paula Wallis and Bill Almon aren’t invisible to Lehigh Cement CEO Saragusa. During our tour of the cement plant, I asked Saragusa if he knows Almon.

“I told him that one of my goals was someday to have him get up in front of the Planning Commission and basically explain that we were doing a great job,” Saragusa says. “And that was my goal: to someday have him actually get up there. I don't want a pat on the back, but to just have him acknowledge that we're doing the right things.”

I ask Bill Almon what he thinks of that. Does he think that could ever happen?

“No, that won’t happen,” Almon says. “You’ve got this huge collision coming. We need to build more homes, we need to widen [highway] 280, we need to fix transportation, we need to put new schools in ... and it has to be in a very healthy environment that technology people are willing to work at.”

In the midst of all that, the cement plant keeps growing, supplying the foundations for a population that’s grown up around it, and isn’t going to stop.